What was the most popular car the year you were born?
You might know who was topping the pop charts when you were born, or which film won the Best Picture Oscar, but what were people driving?
To find out, we’ve been taking a closer look at the UK’s favourite cars through the years. Well, from 1965 to be precise – the year the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) officially started recording registration data. If you’re older, we’ll just have to make a joke about you driving the Model T Ford, or a horse and cart.
Over the years, two or three big hitters have consistently topped the sales tables for multiple years so, as well as Britain’s best-selling cars, we have cast our net wider and picked out some stand-out cars from the top ten sellers list for each year to mix things up a bit. So, without further ado, here’s what was flying out the showrooms the year you were born…
1965 – 1966: Austin-Morris 1100/1300
People were also driving: Ford Anglia
It was the year the Beatles released Help! and also the year the SMMT first started keeping track of car registrations. The nation’s favourite? The humble Austin 1100/1300. It might be the Mini that springs to mind when you think of the swinging sixties, but the larger 1100 was arguably the better car. It used the same revolutionary transverse engine layout but also provided four doors, a capacious boot and a bit more power.
The 1100 retained its number one spot in the year England won the World Cup on home soil, but it was closely followed by the Ford Anglia – another iconic car of the period. First launched in 1959, it had a distinguishing raked rear window design, tonnes of chrome and a Bakelite steering wheel, taking inspiration from the American cars of the period. It just happened to be about half the size, and had less than half of the power.
1967 – Ford Cortina MK II
Worth a mention: Vauxhall Viva
And here it is – the car that would come to monopolise the sales charts for many years to come: the Ford Cortina. 1967 not only saw the roll out of colour TV, but also the introduction of the Cortina in its MKII form. Like the Anglia before it, its styling was borrowed from across the pond; in this case an increasingly popular square look. It became an instant hit. It was also the year Keith Richards and Mick Jagger got busted for drug possession and the Beatles entered their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band phase.
Ford might have been the badge of choice for much of the motoring masses, but another homegrown stalwart was clipping at its heels. Enter the Vauxhall Viva. This is a car that was a consistent performer in the sales charts in the late 60s even if it never managed to completely out-do the Blue Oval.
1968 – 1971 – Morris 1100/1300
Other popular choices: Ford Escort MK I, Mini
Look familiar? That’s because it is. As the swinging sixties turned into the turbulent seventies and Edward Heath moved into Number 10, it was the humble 1100/1300 range that managed to hold on to the top spot. But in the face of newer more exciting designs like the Escort, how did it manage to hit the spot for so long?
Well it probably had something to do with badge engineering. Although originally direct rivals, under British Leyland’s sprawling empire Austin and Morris essentially became one and the same. The 1100/1300 range was available under the guises of Riley, Wolseley and even MG. The differences? Not much, except the badge. 1968 was also the first time you’d have been able to complete a complete journey up and down the M1, after the final stretch opened between Rotherham and Leeds.
In the year Neil Armstrong was taking his first small steps on the moon, there was one giant leap forward for Ford, who had been watching its newly launched Escort slowly snake up the best sellers the year previously. By the end of ‘69 it was in third position, and the name would become a consistent feature on the list for three decades.
1971 saw the introduction of decimalisation in Britain, with the shilling, half-crown and the sixpence being consigned to history. It was also the year the Mini got its mojo back, selling more than 100,000 units for the first time since 1965, putting it in second position behind its larger 1100 sibling. It’s probably the most iconic British car design of all time, but it never managed to make headlines in terms of outright registrations even though it remained in the top ten until 1981.
1972 – 1975 – Ford Cortina MK III
The “also rans”: Austin Allegro, Morris Marina
As unemployment went through the roof and a seven-week long miner’s strike nearly brought the government to its knees, 1972’s respite came in the form of David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars and… a new-and-improved third generation Cortina. It proved to be more successful and stayed at the top of the charts for the next nine years, which set a trend; the best-selling car in the UK has been a Ford in every year since 1972.
1973 was a great year for tech, with the first PC and handheld mobile phone hitting the market. It wasn’t the best of times for the British motor industry, however, and it showed in the form of the Morris Marina. There wasn’t anything wrong with it really, but it wasn’t what you’d call cutting edge. That said, 115,041 rolled out the showrooms in ‘73, making it Britain’s third most popular car at the time. It was also the year Britain joined the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union…
Nixon became the first US President in history to resign from office, but across the pond Austin was clearly looking to inject a bit of European chic in to its range with the Allegro. While it was never going to beat the Cortina or Escort, which remained in the top spots this year, it did enter the top ten, selling 60,619 units in 74. Still a disappointment really, considering it was designed to replace the hugely successful 1100/1300 range. It’s since become a bit of a joke courtesy of its square steering wheel and years of ridicule on a certain BBC car show.
1976 – Ford Escort MK II
Something a little sportier: Ford Capri
1976 saw the Escort finally hit the number one spot by volume, although it’d still be a few years before it finally came into its own. It was also the year American troops pulled out of Vietnam, Steve Jobs founded Apple, and Concorde make its first commercial flight.
If you didn’t have the cash to splash on supersonic jet travel, however, you might still have been able to get yourself a Ford Capri. This sleek two-door coupe was Europe’s answer to the Mustang and was immensely popular from launch. Despite its relatively sporty pretensions, by ‘76 it was the UK’s seventh most popular car.
1977 – 1981 – Ford Cortina MK IV / V
Other common cars: Datsun Sunny, Austin Metro
1977 saw the death of Elvis Presley and the birth of Star Wars fever, with the film hitting cinema screens at the end of December. While the usual suspects could be found at the top of the sales charts – with the Cortina MK VI and V dominating the top spot, between 1977 and 1981 – the Fiesta entered the top ten for the first time, too.
By 1978 the UK was in a mess with industrial disputes and stoppages having an effect on the automotive industry, and motorists were becoming more enticed by foreign brands. The most popular was the Datsun Sunny, which made it into 10th position in ‘78. Away from cars, the very first ‘test-tube baby’ was born in London.
1979 was the first year imports (56%) overtook British-built cars (44%) on the domestic market, and also saw Margaret Thatcher win her first General Election. On the car front, it was business as usual with Ford’s products sitting at the top of the table; even the plush Ford Granada made it to seventh place in 1979.
Unhappily, former Beatle John Lennon was fatally shot in New York in 1980. Happily, the Rubiks Cube made its debut, as did Sony’s Walkman. It was also the beginning of the Cortina’s swansong, with the final MK V facelift accruing 190,291 registrations in 1980, before declining registrations saw it replaced with the Sierra in 1983.
The Austin Metro was dubbed “A British car to beat the world”, and while it might not have been quite capable of that, it sold very well in its domestic market. 110,283 registrations in 1981 made it the UK’s fourth most popular car; more registrations than the Mini had managed in any year since 1965. Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark made it on to the big screen, while MTV was officially launched on the small screen and revolutionised the music industry. The first video played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles.
1982 – 1989 – Ford Escort MK III
Other top sellers: Ford Sierra, Austin Maestro, Vauxhall Nova
1982 was dominated by the Falklands war, but happier news came in the form of the first successful human artificial heart transplant and the introduction of the Compact Disc (CD). Car-wise, the ageing Cortina made way for 166,942 Escort MK IIIs to be the UK’s most popular car in ‘82; an accolade it would hold on to until the end of the decade.
Margaret Thatcher was re-elected for the first time in '83, and wheel clamping was introduced for the first time in London to combat illegal parking. Ford’s newly introduced Sierra was also enjoying the spotlight. 159,119 sales meant Ford’s “jelly mould” hatch shot straight up the leader board to second place, essentially taking on where the Cortina left off.
The Vauxhall Cavalier remains one of the best-selling cars in British history, with more than 1,800,000 produced. However, it never quite managed to break Ford’s stranglehold on the number one spot. The closest it got was in 1984, when it had its best-ever result in second place. This year also saw the famed puzzle video game Tetris launch, as well as the biggest miner’s strike in British history.
Austin’s Maestro was a practical hatchback that was designed to replace the Allegro and, rather than its predecessor’s distinctively ‘70s design, it went too far the other way. If ever there was a “meh” car, it was the Maestro. That didn’t stop it maintaining a place in the top ten list though; in 1985 it was Britain’s sixth most popular car. It would never be as popular as EastEnders though, which launched on BBC1 in ‘85.
Once a sensible supermini, then a banger boy racer chariot, and now (believe it or not) quite collectable, the Vauxhall Nova was an alternative to the ever-dominant Fiesta. It was never able to beat the little Ford – in the sales race at least – but in SRi form it’d have a good go at taking a Fiesta XR2 on at the traffic light grand prix. Its popular peaked in ‘88.
1990 – 1991 – Ford Fiesta
Worth a mention: Peugeot 405
Yes, it’s a Ford (yet again). But what makes 1990 a significant year is the fact it was the first time the supermini Fiesta was officially THE best-selling car. Amassing 151,475 registrations, it managed to hold on to the spot the following year, by which time Thatcher had been ousted from Downing Street and Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.
Peugeot’s 405 was making a splash in 1991 too, climbing to tenth position in the year the Soviet Union was dissolved. A rival for the Sierra and Cavalier, it never beat them in the showroom, but the truth is it was a more modern car in a lot of ways. The 405 was one of the first cars that ushered in more powerful, refined turbo-diesel engines too, making them a big hit on the fleet scene.
1992 - 1995 – Ford Escort
Runner up: Ford Mondeo
A direct replacement for the Sierra, the Mondeo was already up to fifth position in its first year on sale in 1992, a year which also saw Euro Disney open in Paris, Bill Clinton become US president and Prince Charles and Princess Diana separate.
After decades at the top, Ford’s Escort was getting a little long in the tooth by the mid-nineties. 1995 marked the last year it would be the UK’s best-selling car. They needn’t have worried though – the Fiesta and the arrival of the all-new Mondeo ensured they monopolised the top three.
1996 – 1998 – Ford Fiesta
Worth a mention: Vauxhall Vectra
Yes, once again the Ford Fiesta takes the prize of being the UK’s most popular car in 1996. 129,574 made it on to the road in that year, and by this time there was little doubt Ford’s smallest model was a winning formula.
The Vectra replaced the Cavalier and made it into fourth place in 97 – the year Tony Blair became Prime Minister and Princess Diana tragically died in Paris. Like the Cavalier, the Vectra never gained the same following as its blue-emblemed rivals, but it was a staple of company car drivers and families alike.
The year of the “Mondeo man” was officially 1998 – a facelift meant it shot up to second place, but couldn’t quite keep the Fiesta off the top of the chart. It was also the year we first associated the names Clinton and Lewinsky, Google launched, and we saw a return of the Ford Anglia in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
1999 – 2008 – Ford Focus
Other popular choices: Citroen Xsara Picasso, Vauxhall Corsa
Another Ford? Yes, but with a difference. At long last the Escort was killed off, and replaced with the Focus. The bubbly-shaped hatchback shot straight in to first position during its launch year with 103,228 sold overall. With cash burning a hole in its pocket, Ford also bought Volvo in ‘99, while the Euro currency was introduced in 11 countries and the world’s population topped six billion for the very first time.
While Fords and Vauxhalls continued their dominance of the top ten, Peugeot pulled another winner out of the bag with the 206. It was the UK’s ninth most popular car in the millennium year, that also saw the UK grappling with fuel protests, as the supply to petrol stations halted.
MPVs might be going out of fashion now, but back in the early noughties they were the latest thing, and the Citroen Xsara Picasso was one of the most popular at number nine. Elsewhere on the automotive scene, Rover introduced a range of MG-badged performance models to help stop its sliding sales. They entered administration four years later, unlike the Fast and Furious film series, that’s still going strong after making its debut in 2001.
2002 saw Britain reach a record level of new car sales, with more than 2,500,000 vehicles hitting the road. 62,863 of those were Ford’s new Ka city car – the fourth Blue-badged car to make it on to the top ten. Away from automotive, Apple was busy releasing its second-gen iPod with a ground-breaking 20GB of storage, and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards became the must-have playground toy.
In a year that saw the launch of iTunes and the last commercial flight of Concorde, premium German brands were starting to make regular appearances in the top ten. it was the BMW 3 Series that set the compact exec ball rolling, making it on to the list in 2003. Vauxhall’s humble Corsa never made it to the top of the charts, but 2004 saw it reach second position behind the unbeatable Focus. It was – and still is – the UK’s go-to first car.
2008 – present – Ford Fiesta
Up and coming: Nissan Qashqai, Volkswagen Golf
It’s doubtful you’ll be reading this if you’re less than 10 yeas old, but for our (very) young readers and those of you with kids, we’ve included it anyway: since 2008, the Ford Fiesta has come into its own, and has now been the UK’s most popular car for nigh on a decade. The MK VI version you see above was only replaced last year, but at the end of its life it was still a class leader.
But what else has been happening over the last few years? Well, Volkswagen’s Golf is now a rival for the Focus in the family hatch segment, while our love for MPVs like the Xsara Picasso has made way for a new type of vehicle: the crossover. Nissan’s Qashqai was launched back in 2007 and more than a decade later it’s making regular appearances in the top ten.